Are you nervous that you’ll get sick while taking a cruise? Before I fell in love with cruise travel, I was terrified of cruising. There were multiple reasons why, and one of them was that I was convinced cruise ships were floating bastions of disease. If I got on board, I’d immediately contract a stomach bug, or norovirus, or goodness knows what else. Then I’d be trapped on the ship, barfing and sweating and it would be miserable. So why bother?
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Am I a crazy germophobe? Not at all. In fact, I was a flight attendant for several years. Then I was a retail General Manager for a couple of decades. If I had added preschool teacher to my résumé, I would have hit the trifecta of jobs-that-will-get-you-sick. I always follow basic hygienic practices, and I sometimes catch whatever bug is going around. Nothing serious, though. But take a cruise? No way. I’d be asking for trouble.
Then I decided to I was going to try a cruise, and then I took another, and another, and hey! I never caught anything! But it does happen. Here’s how you can keep yourself healthy on your next cruise, and what to do if you get sick.
How can you avoid getting sick (while preventing your fellow passengers from becoming ill)?
If you’re sick when your cruise is sailing, you must declare it.
Before you physically check in to your cruise and receive your cruise card, the cruise line gives you a form to fill out with the date, your name, your ship, other passengers in your family, the basic stuff. One of the questions on the card asks if you have been experiencing any gastrointestinal or cold symptoms. Usually the form will ask if you’ve vomited in the past 24 hours.
If you’re sick, the ship’s infirmary staff will check you to determine if you’re healthy enough to board. Depending on the diagnosis and the severity of the symptoms, a sick person may be quarantined to their stateroom, or denied boarding. Norovirus and other GI illnesses can spread quickly to other passengers on a cruise ship, and cruise lines want to avoid an outbreak that can lead to bad press.
So what happens if you’re denied boarding?
If you’re denied boarding for illness (or for any other reason), the cruise line is not required to refund you for your cruise fare or any other travel expenses. They can and do deny boarding to passengers that they determine will cause a health risk to the other passengers and crew. This is why travel insurance is so important to have!
How to avoid getting sick while onboard
As there’s no incentive for passengers to declare a potentially communicative illness before boarding, sick people do successfully board cruises all the time. So how do you protect yourself from getting sick once on your cruise? While there are no guarantees that you won’t come down with a bug even if you follow all of the best practices, it’s definitely in your best interest to try to avoid catching something that could take the fun out of your cruise vacation.
Note: I am not a doctor or medical professional. I don’t even play one on TV. None of the tips that I provide in this article are meant to take the place of medical advice from a trained professional. If you need medical advice, consult your doctor or other certified medical professional.
Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer
On a cruise ship, it’s a good idea to wash your hands far more often than the average person would at home. Obviously wash after using the restroom and before meals, but also as you return to your stateroom. Bring along a travel-sized hand sanitizer to use after touching surfaces in public areas such as hand railings and elevator buttons. You’ll also see hand sanitizer stations near dining areas, or staff will spray your hands before you eat, such as the “washy-washy” crew on Norwegian’s ships.
If you haven’t been on an NCL cruise, they have a staff member with a spray bottle of hand sanitizer stationed outside of the buffets. They’re usually very animated, and will shout, “washy-washy!” at you with a big smile as they spray your hands with sanitizer. I love those people.
But remember, hand sanitizer does not kill norovirus, MRSA, E. coli or salmonella. Thorough (and I mean really thorough) hand washing with soap and hot water is your best bet.
Update February 29, 2020: Does hand sanitizer kill novel coronavirus COVID-19?
As of right now, scientists are unsure if hand sanitizer is effective against novel coronavirus COVID-19. But, evidence indicates that COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes of infected people. Coronaviruses may live on inanimate surfaces for a period, but it’s unknown how likely it is for humans to be infected this way.
The CDC is currently recommending that passengers on cruise ships wash their hands thoroughly and use hand sanitizer containing 60-95% alcohol if soap and water aren’t available.
As more information is confirmed, I’ll update this post with new information.
Try to only use the restroom in your stateroom
Although you may be fanatical about hygiene, other passengers may not be. Try to avoid using the restrooms in public areas. Although the staff tries to keep them clean, and the public restrooms do usually look tidy, other passengers may not follow basic hygiene procedures. In your own stateroom, you can wipe down the hard surfaces with antibacterial wipes to ensure cleaner conditions.
Worried about odors in your stateroom bathroom? Yeah, there’s really no ventilation, it’s true. DO NOT liberally spray your significant other’s expensive eau de cologne. Just don’t do it. Trust me.
If you have smell worries, take along a little bottle of Poo-Pourri. It’s not expensive, and your cabin mates will thank you.
Open restroom doors with a paper towel
If you find yourself far from your stateroom and you have to use the public restroom, be sure to open the main door with a clean paper towel on your way out. Cruise ship restrooms have paper towels and a trash receptacle right by the door for this purpose. If the last person didn’t wash their hands, but you did, you just undid it by touching that handle. Ick.
Use sanitizing wipes on hard surfaces in your stateroom
Chances are, your room steward will do a great job keeping your room clean. But does he have time to go around and sanitize everything? Probably not. Put some sanitizing wipes in your carry-on so you can give the surfaces in your stateroom a quick wipe-down. Things to focus on? The TV remote, telephone, door handles, and anything in the restroom. It also never hurts to give a quick wipe to any flat surfaces in your stateroom that you might be eating off of. Room service, right?
Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
I’m a fidgety person, and this is always the hardest thing for me to avoid. But we all know germs travel quickly through mucous membranes.
Plus, any of your own bodily fluids that get on your hands from rubbing your eyes, biting your nails, or scratching your nose could transmit bacteria or a virus to others the next time you touch that handrail or bar top.
If you do touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, make sure you wash your hands or apply sanitizer each time, and ask your family members to do the same.
Avoid the buffet
If you really want to play it safe, stay away from the buffet. It makes me sad to say this, because I love buffets. I’m not saying that there’s zero hygiene in cruise buffets. In fact, they’re usually very well maintained, probably more so than your average land-based buffet.
If a cruise ship has an outbreak of illness, many cruise lines will not only mandate hand washing or the use of sanitizer, but many will also switch their buffet self-service to a served buffet. (A few cruise lines actually always have served buffets.) You’ll still walk through the buffet line and choose your dishes, but the crew will serve a helping onto your plate.
In my cruising experience, I’ve seen people pick food up with their hands, inspect it, and then put that food item back for the next person to select. I’ve also seen people cough and sneeze under the sneeze guard. I’ve seen people manhandle multiple clean plates in an attempt to pass a plate to a family member. They realize that the family member already has a plate, so they put it (read: your “clean plate”) back in the stack.
I’m not saying to avoid the buffets altogether. Cruise buffets can be fun! But if you want to be sure that only trained staff has touched your food and your plate, eat in the main dining room. The food and service are better, and it’s complimentary for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
How to avoid seasickness
Seasickness, which is motion sickness, can cause dizziness, fatigue, and nausea. About one-third of people are highly susceptible to motion sickness, and most of the rest of us can feel symptoms under extreme conditions.
Most modern cruise ships have sophisticated stabilizers that work to counteract the feeling of motion that can cause some people to feel seasick. For most passengers, these stabilizers work well enough that most people feel no motion sickness symptoms at all. But if sea conditions are rough, or if a person is highly susceptible to feeling seasick, the stabilizers may not be enough. So what do you do?
Pack some basic seasickness remedies in your cruise first aid kit
Although no one in my family has ever suffered from any severe motion sickness, I always carry some basic remedies in my cruise first aid kit just in case. I like to take a few sets of Sea-Bands as well as a package of Bonine. (Read about how to DIY a cruise first aid kit, and I’ll give you a free printable first aid kit checklist!)
Sea-Bands are soft terry loops that are worn on both wrists. They contain a plastic stud that stimulates the P6 acupressure point to help relieve nausea and vomiting. Bonine is an antihistamine with anti-nausea and anti-spasmodic properties. Bonine can cause drowsiness, and remember that alcohol can make that drowsiness worse.
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Pick the right stateroom location
When experiencing rough weather at sea, the higher the deck you are on, the more pitching you will feel. Recently on a ship traveling through the Caribbean Sea, we passed through a pretty bad storm. Our ship, the Caribbean Princess, had a huge nightclub on the highest level – Deck 19. As we don’t have any problems with motion sickness, we hung out with the bar staff in the empty nightclub for a while. We were pitching quite severely, but when we headed back to our stateroom on Deck 8, the motion was far less noticeable.
If you know you’re prone to motion sickness (or you aren’t sure, but don’t want to take any chances), book a stateroom on the lowest deck you can, preferably mid-ship. These rooms will have the most stable feeling if you happen to pass through rough seas. Do not, under any circumstances, book a guarantee stateroom! Although you can get the cheapest room in your desired category, you won’t be able to select your room. You could end up with a room on the highest deck.
Plus, if you book a slightly more expensive cabin of your choosing, you may receive perks that would make up the difference that you would have saved (think onboard credit, a beverage package, or free wifi, depending on what promotions your travel agency and the cruise line are running).
Know you’ll get seasick? See your doctor first
If you have a history of seasickness, you may want to visit your doctor prior to your cruise. He or she may prescribe you a scopolamine patch that you apply up to eight hours before. The patch can be effective for three days. There are also stronger prescription drugs that your doctor may recommend.
So what if you unexpectedly experience seasickness when you’re already onboard, and you aren’t prepared? You can usually buy OTC medication in the ship’s shop, but you’ll pay a premium price. You can ask at the passenger service desk, and they can usually provide you with some complimentary tablets. Be warned that the medicine does not work quickly. It does the best job when taken the night before the cruise, and then again an hour before sailing.
Try some natural remedies
While waiting for the medicine to work its magic (or if you’re averse to taking medication), many cruisers swear by green apples. You can usually order green apples and crackers from room service. Another natural remedy is ginger. If you can’t find ginger candy in the shop, you may have an easier time finding ginger tea.
What if I start to feel sick during my cruise?
If you feel that you’re coming down with an illness during your cruise, definitely make a visit to the ship’s infirmary. Did you know that cruise ships from the major lines have 24-hour medical care available? On the Royal Princess once, I had an allergic reaction and had to visit the infirmary. I was expecting something akin to an elementary school nurse’s office. I couldn’t have been more wrong!
The medical facility was fairly large, with a receptionist, a doctor, and a couple of nurses working when I visited. In fact, large cruise ships often sail with two physicians and three or four RNs on staff! I had to have some tests completed, including an EKG. The doctor gave me prescription medication immediately, as well as a small amount to take with me in case my symptoms returned.
The cost of the visit was charged to my ship’s card, but it was only a few hundred dollars. When I returned home, I was able to submit the claim to my health insurance and travel insurance providers. Have I told you lately that you should always purchase travel insurance? You should. I only had a small claim, but it made up for the cost of buying the insurance.
If you feel sick, go visit the infirmary. If you have something communicable, you may be quarantined to your stateroom (but you probably would want to stay in bed anyway). The crew will bring meals to your room, as well as any medication you might need.
With something more serious, you may be required to seek more advanced medical treatment at the next port. In life-threatening situations, a patient can be evacuated by helicopter to a medical facility on land.
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How to avoid gastrointestinal problems in port
We’ve all heard of travelers contracting “Montezuma’s Revenge” or “Delhi Belly” from something they ate or drank while traveling in a foreign country. Traveler’s diarrhea is common in much of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Mexico, and Central and South America. Although the vast majority of those affected recover from symptoms in four days, for some people it can take a week to subside. How can you avoid a similar problem ruining your cruise?
Watch out for the water
Most of us know to avoid tap water when traveling. But did you think of ice cubes? They’re usually made from, you got it, tap water. Avoid water that’s not from a sealed bottle, and specify “no ice” when ordering other drinks. Coffee or tea? Another no. Although the water is heated for these hot drinks, it’s most likely not boiled, so bacteria can remain. Your safest bet is to drink sealed carbonated beverages. Why carbonated? Sometimes unscrupulous restaurant owners refill water bottles with tap water. It’s hard to fake the “whoosh” of carbonation when opening a bottle.
Stay away from raw, cut fruits and vegetables
As traveler’s diarrhea is usually due to poor sanitation, avoid any raw fruits or vegetables such as salad or cut fruit. These foods may not have been washed properly. Fruits that you peel yourself, such as oranges or bananas, are generally considered safe.
Don’t eat any raw or partially cooked meat
Ceviche, poke, sashimi and other raw delicacies are delicious, but it’s safest to avoid them when you’re in port. During the summer of 2018, the Bahamas’ Ministry of Health confirmed several cases of conch poisoning, caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria. Although rinsing with clean, fresh water can remove the bacteria, play it safe and only eat cooked meats when traveling to areas where bacterial infections are common, or sanitation may be questionable.
Do I need to get any special vaccines or medication when cruising to a foreign country?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that you ensure you’re up-to-date on all of your regular vaccines before traveling.
As for region-specific vaccines and medications, the CDC has health information for cruise ship passengers traveling to any country in the world. If you find that you need specialized vaccines or medication that your regular doctor or pharmacy can’t provide, you may have to visit a travel clinic. Be sure to visit at least a month prior to your trip.
Have you ever been hit with a stomach bug or other sickness on a cruise ship? Or do you have any tips on staying healthy on board that I didn’t mention? Let me know in the comments below!
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